For most Americans, the 9/11 attacks forever altered the way they looked at America’s place in the world. We were revealed as vulnerable in ways we’d not experienced since the Pearl Harbor attack almost 70 years before, and the sense of vulnerability was magnified by the nature of the attacks and our experience of them in real time. If you were in NYC or DC on that day, you can almost certainly remember–in vivid detail–where you were when you learned of the attacks, or, in my case, what you saw as an attack unfolded.
But most people probably don’t remember what happened exactly seven days after those planes slammed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. There was another attack that took place on September 18, 2001. But unlike the attacks a week before, this assault barely drew any public notice because there were no exploding buildings, no maimed or dead bodies–yet. This attack took place on the floors of the House and Senate, and the target was the Constitution of the United States.
Those in the Bush administration who orchestrated the assault, and most House and Senate members who participated in the planning or the execution of it, would take the greatest offense at the idea that their actions were aimed at undoing over 200 years of American law and history. They would argue–in fact, did argue at the time and in the years after–that their actions were designed to protect the United States and our form of government. They were deluding themselves. The attack they launched has proven the most deadly our form of government has ever sustained.
The attack vehicle was the arcane-sounding S. J. Res. 23, the joint resolution authorizing the use of military force “against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.”
In the week after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched an aggressive lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill to secure the broadest possible mandate for Bush to pursue Al Qaeda. Indeed, as journalist Kurt Eichenwald has chronicled in his new book, 500 Days: Secrets And Lies In The Terror Wars, the original language proposed by Deputy White House Counsel Tim Flanigan was radical in its scope:
The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force in the United States and against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons. (emphasis added)(p. 61)
Flanigan and others on Bush’s national security team were seeking the unquestioned ability to use lethal force inside the borders of the United States in response to the attacks. The only other time that kind of authority had been sought and used by a president was Lincoln during the Civil War–and that was a battle between Americans on American soil.
In the end, pushback from then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Dashle and a handful of other Democrats caused Flanigan and other Bush administration negotiators to remove that specific language–but otherwise George W. Bush got the most sweeping, open-ended grant of wartime executive power in U.S. history. Here’s the key language as it stands to this day:
That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
“Necessary and appropriate force” was undefined, the scope of the conflict was global, and its duration indefinite. The President alone would determine who “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 attacks; his judgments would be unreviewable and would be presumed to be accurate simply on the basis of his assertions or those of Administration officials representing him. And to implement this indefinite, global campaign, Bush’s legal team would seek to push–and in several cases go well beyond–the limits of existing law in the areas of detention, interrogation and surveillance…particularly when a sometimes reluctant, Democratically-controlled House or Senate raised questions–almost always privately–about the propriety of a given course of action. The needless Iraq war, and the road to the abuses uncovered at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, started with the AUMF approved by Congress and signed into law by Bush on September 18, 2001.
Beyond punishing the 9/11 attackers & any who might have aided them, the second objective of the AUMF was to “prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.” Given that no nation has ever succeeded in preventing all terrorist attacks against its territory, citizens or interests, it did not seem to dawn on the proponents of the resolution that they were handing America’s military, intelligence and law enforcement organizations a task that was, by definition, impossible. And yet it is that second, unobtainable objective that is now the driving force behind the current Administration’s multi-continent war against the remnants of Al Qaeda or their local Salafist offshoots.
Osama bin Laden and several of his key lieutenants are dead. The operational mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, has been an American prisoner since March 2003. And despite years of military and covert operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and perhaps other nations in the Muslim world–at a cost of over a trillion dollars and counting–those operations failed to prevent the Ft. Hood shootings, or the disrupted/failed plots hatched by Najibulah Zazi, Faisal Shahzad, or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab…plots that failed only because of the ineptitude of the would-be bombers, not because of the hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve invested in our national security apparatus since 9/11.
In the meantime, we have allowed two successive Administrations–with the active support of most of the Congress during this period–to subvert or even overturn key parts of the Bill of Rights in the name of national security and the endless, fruitless quest to “prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.” And that is the bitter irony and most pernicious legacy of the 9/11 attacks and the endless war resolution that followed it. Osama bin Laden did not destroy the foundations of our republican form of government. By passing the AUMF, we did that for him…and 11 years later there is no sign we are going to awake from the madness that has brought us to this point.